06/04/2012 10:16 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Meatless Monday: Hearts, Minds And James McWilliams

Health, the environment, ethics, animal rights, because you want a hot bod, because it makes you feel good about yourself. They're all reasons to go vegan and as far as I'm concerned, they're all good. I just want to get the plant-based dialogue going. I'm the vegan inviting everyone to the table -- omnivores, flexitarians and the whole vegan substrata -- health vegans (green smoothies are on me, guys), raw vegans, culinary vegans, ethical vegans and James McWilliams, ethical, argumentative vegan.

"When you are advocating for ethical veganism," says the author and Texas State University historian, "you're advocating for a shift in values with implications far beyond how we eat." McWilliams wants liberation. Yours, if you're that way inclined, but mostly, he wants liberation for animals.

It all started five years ago, when McWilliams was researching what would become his controversial book Just Food, in which he denounces the locavore movement as ill-conceived and ineffective. So what alternative could he offer? One he realized he'd have to make himself. He became vegan. "I can't in any way begin to consider myself environmentally responsible if I eat meat."

McWilliams, who speaks this Saturday at Mad City Vegan Festin Madison, WI, takes a two-pronged approach to his advocacy -- sociological and intellectual. It's embodied in his two books in progress, one, a study of factory farming in America and the other addressing our "unthinking decision to eat animals." McWilliams wants you to think. He likens our treatment of animals -- 10 billion raised in factory farming conditions and killed annually for food -- historically akin to our acceptance of slavery. "Two hundred years from now, we're going to look back at this time with absolute horror," he says.

He believes "in the inherent goodness of people." But he thinks we could use a bit of a push. He also thinks the fulcrum that's going move us forward as a species is liberating other species. If he's ahead of the curve, he's okay with that. "You put the message out there with clarity, honesty and passion and hope the winds of change will catch it."

Halfway measures and baby steps towards going plant-based don't cut it for McWilliams. "My argument is, this is not a legitimate response. It's like ethical butchers or eating local -- making us feel good but not confronting the issue, an environmental, economic and ethical reason why we need an alternative to the alternative, that of course is ethical veganism."

McWilliams spends a lot of time thinking, but not so much about his meatless meals. He's a lunchtime regular at nearby Casa de Luz, a terrific vegan retreat. At home, he and his family eat simply -- beans, rice, salsa, "bowls of crazy salads. They're tasty and extremely good."

I'm for whatever gets you to the table. We are stronger together than when splintered apart. If you've come to veganism for your health, you'll love it for the ethos. If you come for the morality, you're going to love the way you feel physically, the way it opens up positive change in your life. If you're a three-burger a day kinda guy who wants to have it out with McWilliams, hey, there's room for you, too.

Argument can take you far, but only so far. Even McWilliams believes that. He recalls seeing a factory farming video of a cow giving birth and her utter devastation when her calf is taken from her. You can say animals don't have feelings. You can say hey, we've all got to eat. You can say anything you like. "All the philosophy, all the hairsplitting didn't matter," he says. "All I needed to see was that."

Roasted Beet Salad with Chili-Lime Vinaigrette

Sparked with a chili-lime vinaigrette, this crazy summer salad is lunch in a bowl. Like McWilliams says, it's "tasty and extremely good."

2 good-sized beets (save greens for another use)
1/2 jicama (also known as Mexican turnip), peeled and diced or 1 young white turnip, peeled and diced
1 orange, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 mango, if available, chopped
3 cups fresh spring greens, such as arugula, butter lettuce, watercress or spinach
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1/3 cup almonds or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

For vinaigrette
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon balsamic or apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons honey or agave nectar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder

Wash beets, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and roast at 400 degrees for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool. The skins will slip off and the beets will be sweet and tender. Beets may be roasted a day ahead and kept wrapped and chilled in the refrigerator.

Mix vinaigrette. In a small bowl, combine lime juice, balsamic or cider vinegar, honey or agave, olive oil, mustard, cumin and chili powder. Whisk until well combined. Makes about 1/3 cup of dressing, ample for salad plus leftovers.

For salad, arrange greens on a platter or pile into individual bowls.

Top with greens with diced beets, jicama or turnip, chopped mango, chopped nuts and cilantro.

Drizzle dressing on top.

Serves 4 to 6.